Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Review: THE SLAVES OF SOLITUDE, Hampstead Theatre

We're back in the world of ration books, blackouts and spam fritters, as Nicholas Wright delves into the home front via his adaptation of Patrick Hamilton's 1947 novel. Though there's a certain period chintz about Jonathan Kent's production, darker undercurrents make this a more complex proposition than it first appears.

It's 1943, and Miss Roach, a 39-year-old reader for a publishing company, is stuck in a dusty Henley boarding house after her London flat was bombed. Her fellow residents, all much older, include the prejudiced bully Thwaites. But her monotonous suffering (which the play could do more to establish as the norm) is disrupted by the arrival of flirtatious African-American serviceman Lieutenant Pike and German emigree Vicki Kugelmann.

The latter becomes a nightmarish creature for Miss Roach, embodying everything that she's not: gregarious, sensual, curvaceous, and thoroughly extroverted. Pike, meanwhile, teases an escapist romance that Miss Roach can never quite trust; love, she states, "ought to be real".

Wright's adaptation emphasises the strange contradictions of this wartime experience: deprivation, loss and the stifling conservatism of the boarding house versus the era's liberating permissiveness. Likewise Miss Roach is both infantilised and also treated as one of the elderly spinsters; here, then, is a moment to prove that her life isn't over yet. But the play complicates that familiar idea of war empowering people to take risks.

As played with aching poignancy by Fenella Woolgar, Miss Roach is all vulnerable points, flinching at the jibes from her constant tormentor Thwaites, the "banter" of her more outgoing friends, the constant intrusive interest of fellow residents. Yet she's unable - by natural personality and by learned reserve - to fully express herself, whether hope and longing or frustration.

A quietly gripping sequence sees her retreat into a corner of the dining room as Pike, Vicki and Thwaites raucously overindulge. A side lamp acts like a spotlight, drawing us to this introverted woman's internal horror, as emotions flash across Woolgar's face.

The production operates best as a mood piece. In places, the necessity of truncating dialogue for adaptation reads as choppy and expository, and a histrionic opening is particularly jarring. Wright has attempted to up the drama, but artificially, rather than allowing the stakes to emerge from further character work; oddly, it makes the play as a whole feel more meandering.

Better are the detailed moments that communicate the pervasiveness of war, whether Miss Roach shrinking from a full moon or "bombers' moon", which gave German planes a clearer path to London, or a haunting scene in which she encounters a former pupil (the excellent Tom Milligan) - now 17, and eager to go off and fight.

There are good supporting turns from Richard Tate as the mysterious Mr Prest, seeking refuge in showbiz; Clive Francis as the loathsome, English language-torturing Thwaites; Gwen Taylor as a distinct set of twins; Lucy Cohu illustrating the desperate calculation of Vicki's glamour; and Daon Broni as Pike, whose boozy charm is actually symptomatic of something more serious.

Tim Hatley's boarding house is a feast of claustrophobic prints, with small tables crowded together: homely, but not a home; somewhere you're never alone, but can certainly be lonely. Set changes are punctuated by a screen whisking across in front - effective, although one of the flats encountered issues on press night.

If not quite making the case for the story in this new medium, it's still an evocative piece, anchored by an affecting central performance from Woolgar, who finds desolation and ultimately strength in Miss Roach's distinctly British isolation.

The Slaves of Solitude at Hampstead Theatre until 25 November

Read our interview with Fenella Woolgar

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Review: WASTED, Lyric Hammersmith Photo
Running at around 50 minutes, it’s snappy and positively Gen-Z in pace and subject. Fernandes crafts a script that wanders from deliciously colloquial to slightly expository, but remains solid throughout. Mundane conversations about parties and cleaning rotas act as the foundation for the pair’s bond, which is bound to be tested and tried once Jacob’s actions are revealed. At its core, it’s a story of friendship and loyalty camouflaged as a crime drama exploring the stigmatisation of sexual violence.

Photos: First Look At English National Operas THE DEAD CITY (DIE TOTE STADT) Photo
See production images for the English National Opera's The Dead City (Die tote Stadt), running 25 March - 8 April 2023.

Review: OF MICE AND MEN, Birmingham Rep Photo
John Steinbeck's 1937 novel, set in California during the Great Depression, may be a period piece, but the parallels with current life in the UK are unmistakable. Dealing with themes of poverty, displacement, prejudice and the desperation for independence, Of Mice and Men makes a timely return to the Birmingham Rep stage in this new production directed by Iqbal Khan.

The story of Sweeney Todd first appeared on the stage in London in 1847 at Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, in a melodrama, 'The String of Pearls', based on a popular “penny dreadful” serialised story.

From This Author - Marianka Swain

Marianka Swain was UK Editor-in-chief of BroadwayWorld. A London-based theatre critic and arts journalist, she also contributes to other outlets such as the Telegraph, The i Paper, Ham & H... (read more about this author)

Book Tickets Now For Christmas Treat ELF THE MUSICALBook Tickets Now For Christmas Treat ELF THE MUSICAL
April 29, 2022

Santa's favourite musical is back in town! ELF – the smash-hit Christmas musical based on the beloved film – returns to London for a strictly limited 8-week season at the Dominion Theatre in London's West End from 14 November to 7 January. Book your tickets here!

Exclusive Presale: Book Tickets Now For THE CAR MANExclusive Presale: Book Tickets Now For THE CAR MAN
April 28, 2022

Fasten your seat belts – The Car Man is back! To celebrate the Royal Albert Hall’s 150th anniversary, Matthew Bourne and his acclaimed dance company New Adventures bring their multi-award-winning production of The Car Man to the Hall for the very first time.

No Booking Fee On THE BOOK OF MORMON TicketsNo Booking Fee On THE BOOK OF MORMON Tickets
April 27, 2022

The Book of Mormon comes from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez. It's currently playing at London's Prince of Wales Theatre in the West End - and you can book tickets now with no booking fee!

Show of the Week: Book £20 Tickets For GET UP, STAND UP! THE BOB MARLEY MUSICALShow of the Week: Book £20 Tickets For GET UP, STAND UP! THE BOB MARLEY MUSICAL
April 25, 2022

Get yourself where the action is and experience the remarkable story of Jamaica’s rebel superstar. The irresistible new production, Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical, has come to life at the Lyric Theatre, London and the message is out. Book exclusively priced tickets now!

Save 55% On Tickets To ANYTHING GOESSave 55% On Tickets To ANYTHING GOES
April 22, 2022

The sold-out musical sensation Anything Goes returns to the Barbican by popular demand. The ‘musical equivalent of sipping one glass of champagne after another’ returns for a limited 7 week season.